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China's Three Gorges dam - eco-boon or cesspool?

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam

CHONGQING, China (Reuters) -- It is already one of China's filthiest cities, but some say this teeming Yangtze River metropolis is now destined to sit on the shores of an immense cesspool formed by a dam hundreds of miles (km) downstream.

Environmental debate is still raging over the Three Gorges dam, just days before the Yangtze is to be blocked so that workers can begin pouring the concrete for its towering walls.

Advocates say the world's mightiest dam will tame an unruly waterway that has claimed 300,000 lives this century alone, and that clean hydro-power will reduce China's reliance on sulfur-belching coal power plants.

A L S O :

Detailed map of China

Critics predict ecological catastrophe for Chongqing and hundreds of other cities, towns and villages along the river.

Instead of a scenic man-made reservoir, they foresee a stinking effluent lake filled with raw sewage and industrial chemicals backing up for 600 km (372) miles.

Silting, they say, will block river drainage outlets in Chongqing: sewage will bubble up through manholes and slosh through the streets of China's largest city.

Some scientists say the sheer weight of the huge lake could trigger an earthquake that in a worst-case scenario would damage the dam and threaten millions of people downstream.

Crystal waters turn murky brown

Water levels behind the dam near Yichang in the central province of Hubei will eventually rise to about 175 meters (577 feet) above sea level, submerging thousands of old factory sites, garbage dumps and mines.

Industrial Chongqing will loom over the lake's western shores in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Many of the millions of people who make their living along the Yangtze fear that the vast amounts of industrial dross and sewage Chongqing pumps into the river will lap against their homes and farms.

"I am not worried about much except the environmental pollution," said Li Xingquan, the captain of a tourist steamer who has plied the Yangtze for 26 years.

China's economic boom of the last two decades has already taken its toll on the river, while intensive farming has further muddied the river's waters by speeding up soil erosion.

"When I swam in the river as a child, I could cup the water in my hands and it would look like mineral water," Li said from his quarters aboard the tour boat 'Immigrant'.

"Sometimes I look at the river and I want to cry."

One billion tons of sewage

Things are likely to get worse.

Official estimates say one billion tons of sewage will flow into the reservoir each year.

Human waste, industrial chemicals and heavy metals will be the main ingredients of this toxic soup.

Adding to the problem, the dam will dramatically slow waterflow from Chongqing to Yichang, robbing the river of its natural self-cleaning mechanism that now flushes sewage into the East China Sea.

While acknowledging the problems, China says the project will be good for the environment overall by reducing reliance on coal, which supplies 75 percent of the country's energy needs.

The dam's 26 turbines -- the largest in the world -- will pump out 18,200 megawatts of electricity, equal to about 10 big coal-fired power stations, or 50 million tons of coal a year.

Officials say the main function of the dam is to tame the mighty Yangtze, which ranks only behind the Amazon and the Congo in terms of water flow. Flooding in the Yangtze basin has killed more than 300,000 people this century alone.

Sewage time bomb

Zigui, one of towns along the river

So far, 53,000 residents and more than 100 factories have been moved from low-lying areas that will be inundated after the river is partially blocked on November 8.

Water levels behind the dam site are expected to rise about 30-40 cm (12-15 inches) after the blocking.

They will rise to 135 meters (445 feet) above sea level by the time the first turbines whir to life in 2003, and they will surge another 40 meters (132 feet) when the project is finished in 2009.

A sewage time bomb could start ticking under Chongqing as silt, no longer carried by rapid waters to the sea, builds up in the lake and blocks spillways for waste water, said Ma Shulin, vice-chairman of the city's Planning Commission.

"We will work to reduce the possibility of eruptions in the waste water system," said Ma, conceding that a blow-back effect was "totally possible."

China says it has ordered tougher environmental standards for new and relocated factories, and says it will build waste water treatment stations in new settlements.

The clean-up begins

Metropolitan Chongqing, which covers dozens of towns and villages and has a total population of 30 million, is to spend 300 million yuan ($36 million) on environmental cleanup, officials said.

"We are paying a lot of attention to environmental protection in the reservoir area," said Zhou Jinhua, mayor of Chongqing's Wanxian county. "We will solve these problems."

Officials say doomed factories will be torn down and their sites scrubbed clean of pollutants. Paper and plastic are to be picked out of landfills and burned, while other trash will be carted to higher ground.

On Chongqing's clean-up list are some 1,300 factories that will be closed. Most of those are small-scale enterprises such as paper factories.

"There are special teams that will carry out inspections and do this work," said Chongqing's Ma.


Pollution is only one aspect of the ecological problem.

Critics say the dam will also threatens many rare plant and animal species along the river and will reduce aquatic life stocks.

Most at risk is the snub-nosed Yangtze River dolphin. Many have been killed or maimed by the propellers of boats, and now only 200 are left.

China has proposed setting up nature reserves for the dolphins and breeding farms for commercial fish species.

Copyright 1997 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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